Today, you’re going to learn what made Joe Gerrard the greatest car salesman of all time, how Tupperware grew their sales to $2.5 million a day, and why uglier criminals are more than twice as likely to go to jail, as well as much more.
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This is the fourth episode in a six part series on The Science of Success titled Weapons of Influence, and based on the bestselling book, Influence, by Robert Cialdini. Each of these weapons of influence are deeply rooted and verified by experimental psychology research, which you’re about to get a ton of amazing examples of.
Last week we talked about why news coverage makes school shootings more likely by a factor of 30 times, which is crazy; how someone can get stabbed to death in front of 38 people and no one does a thing; and why you should always point at the dude in the blue jacket and tell him to help you. The topic we covered last week was the concept of social proof and how it is so powerful that it can literally override someone’s desire to live. If you haven’t checked out that episode yet, listen to it after this one.
Today, we’re going to talk about the liking bias. Liking bias sounds pretty straightforward, but some of the research is pretty astounding. You’ll be amazed to learn what impacts our perceptions of what we think we like, and how easily those perceptions can be manipulated in a way that materially impacts our decision making. Here’s how Cialdini describes the liking bias: “People prefer to say ‘yes’ to individuals they know and like. Recognizing this rule, compliance professionals commonly increase their effectiveness by emphasizing several factors that increase their overall attractiveness and likeability.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘compliance professionals’, we talked about that in the first episode of Weapons of Influence and it’s essentially a term that Cialdini uses to describe somebody who is wielding these weapons of influence to convince other people to comply with their requests.
There are a few primary drivers of the liking bias. One of the biggest culprits is physical attractiveness. As Cialdini notes: “Physical attractiveness seems to engender a halo effect that extends to favorable impressions of other traits such as talent, kindness, and intelligence. As a result, attractive people are more persuasive in both terms of getting what they request and in changing other’s attitudes.”
The second major driver of the liking bias is similarity. As Cialdini says: “We like people who are like us, and we are more willing to say ‘yes’ to their requests, often in an unthinking manner.” That actually brings up an interesting point. If you remember from the last episode where we talked about the idea of social proof, and we talked about how whenever there’s front page coverage of a suicide there is an unexplained uptick of more than 50 related suicides. The factor that drives that, and we get much more detail on it in the previous episode of the podcast, but the factor that drives that more than anything is when similar others see somebody like them doing something it drives them to that behavior. It’s a similarity, and a crossover, between that liking bias and social proof, but if you want to learn more and dig deeper into that concept, the previous episode does a great job of explaining that.
The third thing that really drives the liking bias is familiarity. Familiarity breeds liking in an insidious and subconscious fashion. Here’s what Daniel Kahneman says in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, which is another fabulous book about psychology, by the way: “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”
The fourth major way that liking bias works is via Pavlovian association, or mirror association, as it’s sometimes called. Here’s what Cialdini has to say about it: “The linking of celebrities to products is another way advertisers cash in on the association principle. Professional athletes are paid to connect themselves to things that can be directly relevant to their roles: sports shoes, tennis rackets, golf balls, or wholly irrelevant: soft drinks, popcorn poppers, panty hose. The important thing for the advertiser is to establish the connection. It doesn’t have to be a logical one just a positive one. What does Tiger Woods really know about Buicks, after all?”
Okay, now let’s dig into some of the research examples that support and demonstrate some of these different manifestations of the liking bias. The first example is Tupperware parties. Now, Tupperware parties are something that today aren’t quite as popular, and aren’t as frequent, but in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s was a huge social phenomenon. You see it today. People do different socially themed parties to sell things, and the reason that this sort of sales methodology is still around is because it’s so incredibly powerful. I’ll let Cialdini describe it here: “In fact, consumer researchers who have examined the social ties between the hostess and the party goer in home party sales settings have affirmed the power of the company’s approach. The strength of that social bond is twice as likely to determine product purchase as is the preference for the product itself. The results have been remarkable. It was recently estimated that Tupperware sales now exceed $2.5 million a day. Indeed, Tupperware’s success has spread around the world to societies in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, where one’s place in a network of friends and family is more socially significant than the United States. As a result, now less than a quarter of Tupperware sales take place in North America. What is interesting is that the customers appear to be fully aware of the liking and friendship pressure embodied in the Tupperware party. Some don’t seem to mind, others do, but don’t seem to know how to avoid these pressures.” I think that’s a really critical distinction and something to draw out of that quote, the fact that people are consciously aware of the bias, and consciously aware of this sort of awkward obligation to purchase the Tupperware. Or, if you’ve ever been to a Trunk Club show, or there’s a lot of other social sales settings, and home party sales settings, that people use to bring to bear the liking bias, and to drive sales. Tupperware showcases how they’ve used this gorilla underground marketing strategy, driven in a psychological bias that’s rooted in science, to grow the organization to more than $2.5 million a day in sales.
The next example is the greatest car salesman of all time. It’s a guy named Joe Gerrard, and he was actually named the greatest car salesman of all time by The Guinness Book of World Records. So, I didn’t just make that title up. That’s something that he was awarded by The Guinness Book of World Records. The question is: How exactly did Joe achieve that goal, right? Obviously he had to sell a lot of cars, but what did he leverage, or what tools did he use to sell so many vehicles? I’ll let Cialdini tell the story: “There is a man in Detroit, Joe Gerrard, who specializes in using the liking rule to sell Chevrolets. He became wealthy in the process, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. With such a salary we might guess that he was a high level GM executive, or perhaps the owner of a Chevrolet dealership, but no. He made his money as a salesman on the showroom floor. He was phenomenal at what he did. For 12 years straight he won the title of number one car salesman, and averaged more than five cars and trucks sold every day that he worked. He’s been called the world’s greatest car salesman by The Guinness Book of World Records.” The quote continues later: “Joe Gerrard says the secret of his success was getting customers to like him. He did something that, on the face of it, seems foolish and costly. Each month he sent every one of his more than 13,000 former customers a holiday greeting card containing a printed message. The holiday greeting card changed from month-to-month: Happy New Years, Happy Valentine’s Day, Happy Thanksgiving, and so on, but the message printed on the face of the card never varied.”
I’m gonna pause and interrupt the quote for a second because this is a critical thing to pay attention to, and it’s so simple, and so transparent, and it’s almost a no-brainer when you think about it, but pause for a second and ask yourself: What do you think the card that he sent said every month? The quote continues: “The card read: ‘I like you’. As Joe explained it: ‘There’s nothing else on the card. Nothin’ but my name. I’m just telling ‘em that I like ‘em.’ I like you. It came in the mail every year, twelve times a year like clockwork. ‘I like you’, on a printed card that went to 13,000 other people. Could a statement of liking, so impersonal, obviously designed to sell cars, really work? Joe Gerrard thought so, and a man as successful as he was at what he did deserves our attention. Joe understood an important fact about human nature: We are phenomenal suckers for flattery.” Again, this highlights a very similar principle, which is the fact that people can be totally aware of the liking bias. It can be totally transparent and yet it still drives behavior. It still influences the way that people think. It still gets into your mind, and still impacts your thinking, and that’s one of the core lessons across all the weapons of influence. None of these things are totally shockers, right? I mean, liking bias, that’s not something that takes a rocket scientist to come up with. Congratulations, if you like somebody you’re more likely to want to interact with them, do business with them, listen to them, etcetera. Great, but the reality is when you look at how it impacts people’s behavior, when you look at how something as simple as a printed card that just says, ‘I like you’ drove Joe Gerrard to becoming the greatest car salesman of all time, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. That’s a lesson that’s worth paying attention to. There’s something in there that’s worth digging down and really figuring out: What other manifestations of the liking bias are taking place in your life? What other ways has the liking bias shaped your decision making? What are some of the ways that you can use the liking bias to achieve the goals that you want to achieve?
Let’s look at another example: physical attractiveness and the judicial system. This comes from a study in 1980. Researchers rated the physical attractiveness of a number of different defendants in court cases. They had 74 people in total, but they rated their physical attractiveness. They came back several months later, after the decisions had been made, the court rulings had been made, and they looked at: How did those trials fare, and did physical attractiveness play a role in the outcome of the cases? Here are the results from Influence: “When much later the researchers checked court records for the results of these cases they found that the handsome men had received significantly lighter sentences. In fact, attractive defendants were twice as likely to avoid jail as unattractive defendants. In another study, this one on the damages awarded in a staged negligence trial, a defendant who was better looking than his victim was assessed an average amount of $5,623, but when the victim was more attractive of the two, the average compensation was $10,051. What’s more, both male and female jurors exhibited the attractiveness-based favoritism.” I don’t think there’s an example of something that we think of as more objective, more rational, more bias-free than the judicial system. Obviously, there are a lot of issues with the judicial system, which we are not gonna get into, but when you think about human institutions, obviously everyone makes mistakes, humans are fallible, but at some level, I think subconsciously especially, we hold the judicial system in high regard, but when you look at the research, physical attractiveness has that sizeable of an impact on court cases. It’s staggering.
Another study, which I don’t have in front of me, but I think we’ve actually mentioned before on the podcast- the results... I don’t remember exactly what it was, but essentially they looked at when the judge had last eaten, and basically right after the judge had eaten, like taken a lunch break, or when they had eaten breakfast, their sentences were much lighter and much easier, but then right when they were coming up to lunch time, or right when they were getting to the end of the day, their sentences were much harsher. Again, it blows my mind that something that seems so… that should be so objective, and so rational, something as base as physical attractiveness can exert that much of an influence. I think, personally I feel… probably most of the people listening to the people listening to this podcast, if you were to ask anybody: “Hey, does physical attractiveness impact the way that you feel about people?” we’re taught from the age of two to be like, “No, of course not,” right? Don’t judge a book by its cover. Well, even in the judicial system highly educated judges are making decisions at a subconscious level based on physical attractiveness, and based on the liking bias.
Another example is something called mirroring and matching. This is actually something you can try at home, and if you are a follower of Tony Robbins at all, he advocates this, and talks about this, a lot. Mirroring and matching is something that’s really fascinating, and I’ll tell you kind of an example that you can do and then we’ll talk about the research, but one thing you can do is actually… the way to build rapport with people is to mirror and match their behavior, which basically means somebody’s talking in a certain tone, match their tone of voice. If somebody’s sitting a certain way, sit the same way as they do. If somebody has their arms crossed, cross your arms. If they’re leaning forward, lean forward; etcetera. There’s all kinds of- you’ve heard that stat that X percentage of communication is nonverbal. What that really means is that mirroring and matching, and sort of doing exactly what someone does physically, is a way to subconsciously create a connection with somebody, and build rapport with someone even without ever saying anything. One of the ways you can try that is: If you’re ever at a restaurant, or at a bar, pick out somebody, like a total stranger- and this an exercise I think Tony Robbins came up with- just start mirroring and matching everything that they do. When they take a sip of their water, take a sip of your water. When they scratch their head, scratch your head. All of the activities, everything they do, mirror their activity exactly, and what will happen is a lot of times that person will come up to you randomly and be like, “Hey, do I know you from somewhere?” because their subconscious has picked up on some sort of similarity between the two. They like you at some level because of the fact that you’ve been mirroring and matching them. Because you’ve been doing physically the same thing as them.
So, I’ll just read this brief quote from Influence where they talk a little bit about how mirroring and matching ties into the liking bias: “Many sales training programs now urge trainees to ‘mirror and match the customer’s body posture, mood, and verbal style. As similarities along each of these dimensions have been shown to lead to positive results.’” Here’s another quote: “A 1970 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, by a guy named Dr. Ray Birdwhistell”- quite the name- “concluded that 93% of our communication takes place nonverbally and unconsciously.” Mirroring and matching is part of the way, or part of the reason, that that takes place.
Alright, now let’s take a look at a research example that talks about familiarity. Familiarity can be an extremely powerful bias. It’s something that Cialdini draws on, and that Daniel Kahneman, who we talked about before, calls the ‘mirror exposure effect’. Drawing again from Thinking Fast and Slow, here’s a fascinating experiment about familiarity that Kahneman and his associates conducted, where they showed images rapidly and then later asked participants to rate if the images were good or bad. Here’s how Kahneman describes it: “When the mysterious series of ads ended, the investigators sent questionnaires to the university communities asking for impressions of whether each of the words ‘means something good or something bad’. The results were spectacular. The words that were presented more frequently were rated much more favorably than the words that had been shown only once or twice. The findings had been confirmed in many experiments using Chinese ideographs, faces, and randomly shaped polygons. The mirror exposure effect does not depend on the conscious experience of familiarity. In fact, the effect does not depend on consciousness at all. It occurs even when the repeated words, or pictures, are shown so quickly that observers never become aware of having seen them. They still end up liking the words or pictures that were presented more frequently. As should be clear by now, system one can respond to impressions of events of which system two is unaware. Indeed, the mirror exposure effect is actually stronger for stimuli that the individual never consciously sees.” Wow, that’s pretty crazy. Think about that. If you see an image more frequently, you’ll like it more. You’re more familiar with it and that drives you to like it more, but the crazy thing is if you see it only at a subconscious level, you actually have a stronger positive association with it. This is a really, really dangerous way that liking bias can manifest itself. It’s something that, at a subconscious level, the more you’re exposed to something- that’s why Kahneman calls it the mirror exposure effect- the more you’re exposed to something, the more times you see it subconsciously, the more that you like it. The more that it can drive your behavior. It doesn’t matter what it is. They did it with words, faces, Chinese characters, randomly shaped polygons, all kinds of different things, and the effect still held. It was more powerful when they showed it at such a speed that people were not consciously aware of it. It never ceases to amaze me that the human mind can be manipulated, or impacted, by something like that. It’s fascinating. If you don’t think about it, if you don’t understand it, it can impact you, but there are ways that you can still combat that and defend against that, and that’s one of the things that Cialdini talks about in Influence, and we’ll talk about it in the learnings and recap section of this episode. That particular experiment is, to me, maybe the most powerful, the most interesting, experiment on this episode.
The next piece of the liking bias is something that, on the surface sounds very similar to familiarity, and there are similar undertones, but we’re gonna talk about Pavlovian association. The Pavlov experiment is the experiment where he rings the bell while he’s feeding the dogs, and he does that for a while, conditions them to do that, and then rings the bell without feeding them and they salivate. The way that’s typically taught, or the way people react to that is: “Okay, cool. So, the bell rang and the dog salivated. Congratulations.” What does that really mean? What that really means is that any two completely unrelated phenomenon can be linked together, and can drive your perception, and the way that you think and feel about that particular object. One of the most obvious manifestations of Pavlovian association is when you see an advertisement that has a celebrity endorsement, and often the celebrity has nothing to do with the product they’re endorsing, but just having the celebrity endorsement itself is what drives those sales; what drives people to like that particular product. If you like Peyton Manning and he’s endorsing something on TV, at a subconscious level you draw the association, the connection, between those two things, and you like whatever he’s endorsing more. In Influence they cite a number of examples of TV doctors, actors who play doctors on TV, doing commercials where they advocate certain medicines, or certain medical procedures, or whatever it might be. It has a huge positive impact on the sales of that particular procedure, or product, or whatever it is, which is totally ludicrous if you think about the fact that just because they play a doctor on TV, they have absolutely no medical credibility, but because of the Pavlovian association between seeing that actor on television playing a medical expert, people are driven to believe what they have to say, and listen to what they have to say.
I want to tie this in with a quote from Charlie Munger, who’s somebody I’m a huge fan of, and somebody we’ve talked a lot about on the podcast. He really hammers home how widespread, and how relevant, Pavlovian association is, and how much it impacts huge swaths of our society in our everyday lives without us having any knowledge, or any realization. “Practically three quarters of advertising works on pure Pavlov. Just think how pure association works. Take Coca Cola, where we’re the largest shareholder. They want to be associated with ever wonderful images: heroics, the Olympics, music, you name it. They don’t want to be associated with president’s funerals. The association really works at a subconscious level, which makes it very insidious. The Persians really did kill the messenger that brought the bad news. Do you think that is dead?” I love the analogy of Coca Cola advertising and the fact that, if you think about it, if you see any advertisement they’ve ever done, it’s all about happiness and ‘make the world a better place’, and ‘let’s all be happy’, and open happiness, all that stuff. They’re not running advertisements with president’s funerals, and that’s because those have a very negative, very sad association, but the reality is whatever they’re advertising with, the association that they’re drawing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what they’re actually talking about. It’s just like the dog and the bell. Two completely unrelated phenomenon, and just through repeating them over and over and over again, as the Kahneman experiment shows, you can link those things together and make people feel, and really believe, that there’s a positive association there.
One other thing I wanted to touch on briefly is the impact of flattery and compliments, and how those tie into the liking bias. They did a study in 1978, and they found that, quoting from Influence, “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true.” I mean, that’s something that’s pretty simple and straightforward, but again it’s so transparent, and it’s so obvious. You can give someone a compliment that isn’t even true and it will increase, at a subconscious level, their liking towards you and how they feel about you.
So, let’s tie this up. Let’s wrap this up and talk about some of the key learnings about the liking bias. I know we touched on a bunch of research, and some of this research is mind-blowing, but there’s really four or five core drivers of the liking bias. We talked about physical attractiveness, we talked about how that impacts the supposedly objective judicial system. We talked about similarity and how similar others can- and mirroring and matching- can drive a subconscious connection, a subconscious liking bias. We talked about familiarity, how just merely seeing something, and being more familiar with it, even at a subconscious level, makes you like something more. We talked about Pavlovian association, about how just connecting two unrelated things, again and again and again, can drive somebody to like something. And we touched briefly on the power of praise and flattery even if it’s totally transparent and totally obvious.
How can we defend against the liking bias? Cialdini cites two ways to potentially catch ourselves, or defend against, falling prey to this bias. The first thing he recommends is to focus on finding, and being aware of, the feeling that we’ve come to like something, or someone, more quickly and more deeply than we would have expected to. If you just met somebody and suddenly you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I love this guy,” or like, “We are new best friends and we just met,” maybe there’s something at play there. Maybe that should be a trigger to just press pause and think, “Hold on a second. I need to pull back, and I need to think about this a little more deeply. Why have I suddenly jumped in and become so- why have I started liking this thing so much so rapidly?” Again, as we talked about in previous Weapons of Influence episodes, the way to cultivate the mental awareness to be able to flag those thoughts in your mind and catch on to them, is with tools like meditation, which we will talk about in a future episode.
The second thing that Cialdini recommends is the simple recognition of the fact that we like something so much when it isn’t really warranted by the facts, or isn’t really warranted by the data, it is one of the best ways to combat that. Again, there’s no perfect solution, but it really stems from self-awareness and trying to be objective, and even if you can just catch yourself liking something more than you should, or liking something for a totally- no reason that you can rationally determine, flagging that thought in your mind is enough to start building the awareness, and slowing down and saying, “Hold on a second. Why am I falling prey to this bias?”
That wraps up our episode on the liking bias.